A recent Media Matters analysis found an overall lack of substantial discussions about college affordability issues on evening cable news programs. Notably, nearly a quarter of the total time spent discussing topics related to college affordability across all three major cable networks over the course of a year came from MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews. Hardball’s discussions about topics such as rising college costs and student debt burdens illustrate what may have been the driving force for a vast majority of the limited conversations the study found across all networks -- a tie-in with the current presidential election.
In a recent study, Media Matters analyzed a year of evening cable news programming on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC and found that, together, all three networks devoted just under 2 hours and 22 minutes in 56 segments, in total, to discussing college affordability issues over the course of the year. Fox News’ and MSNBC’s evening news programs each spent a little under an hour discussing these topics (24 and 23 segments, respectively), and CNN devoted just under 35 minutes, or nine segments.
MSNBC’s Hardball single-handedly accounted for just over a quarter of the total number of qualifying segments in this study and nearly half an hour of total discussion time.
Why did Hardball account for such a large proportion of the total substantial discussion in Media Matters’ analysis? One finding suggests it was an election-year phenomenon: All 15 of the Hardball segments included in the study feature at least one guest discussing a specific presidential candidate’s record, stances, or policy proposals related to college affordability. Although host Chris Matthews’ questions or assertions about candidates’ stances often only grazed the surface, they show that cable news programs are capable of providing more in-depth coverage on college affordability when the interests of the host, guests, and the public converge.
In many of these segments, Matthews introduced the topic by asking guests -- often strategists or campaign surrogates -- to explain higher education policy differences between the two then-Democratic presidential hopefuls: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Discussions of these differences frequently focused on political strategy and voter appeal as much as on the details of the proposals.
Though many of these exchanges were brief or limited in scope, Matthews’ questions about Sanders’ and/or Clinton’s policy proposals demonstrate that evening cable news has the capacity to provide detailed, policy-focused discussions under the right circumstances: when guests are eager to talk about the issue, hosts are prepared to ask questions, and viewers have demonstrated a desire for more information.
The presidential race appears to have dictated these particular circumstances for the year studied. In fact, the majority of qualifying guests on each of the three cable networks specifically talked about at least one presidential candidate’s record or views on a college affordability issue -- or they were themselves a candidate at the time of their appearance.
When considering only those guests who spoke substantially about college affordability topics (many guests were participants in multitopic discussions, but did not speak specifically about college affordability), that number jumps even higher. Nearly 90 percent of guests who discussed college costs, student loans, or impacts of the national student debt burden also mentioned a specific presidential candidate’s record or stances on these issues.
With so many of the college affordability discussions on evening cable news closely tied to the presidential election, it’s unclear what will happen to those (already limited) conversations after November.
Image created by Sarah Wasko. Video created by Coleman Lowndes.